Seventy-five years ago, George Orwell (1903–1950) published the most famous political essay ever written—and also the most widely anthologized essay of the twentieth century: “Politics and the English Language.” Millions of American students have encountered it in college freshman composition courses or in introductory rhetoric and political-policy classes. A 1999 study found that between 1946 and 1996 it was reprinted 118 times in 325 editions of 58 anthologies intended for use in college-level composition classes—and that number has probably doubled in the past twenty years.
Teachers and professors assign the essay for various reasons: to promote cultural literacy, to foster critical thinking, to introduce the “plain style,” to heighten awareness of euphemism and jargon, and to clarify the connections between politics and language. (One of the great ironies of literary history is that the essay was rejected when it was first submitted to a prominent London editor, George Weidenfeld, at Contact, only later to be accepted by Horizon, which was edited by Orwell’s friend Cyril Connolly.)
“Politics and the English Language” argued that the English language was being ruined as a tool of communication by an onslaught of vague and misleading words, dying metaphors, and obfuscatory jargon. Political discussion was thereby being corrupted and only a serious effort to seek the truth by both writers and readers would reverse the decline. To illustrate the worrisome decline in English prose, Orwell selected five passages written by well-known writers in the period just after World War II and then examined their various shortcomings. Throughout the essay Orwell’s commitment is to the use of language as an instrument for the clear and accurate expression of thought. His criticism is focused on language that serves either to distort meaning or hide the author’s intentions.
“Political language and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” Orwell conceded, citing various euphemisms and buzzwords used to justify jingoist nationalism, ideological purges, nuclear weapons, and political persecution. Politicians were responsible for much of the abuse of language, Orwell noted—and certainly little has changed since his day in that regard. We are still engulfed by Newspeak and doublespeak—that is, by language “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Bleak as the linguistic climate was in the immediate aftermath of World War II—and in the midst of Soviet-style dictatorships arising throughout Eastern Europe as the Cold War (Orwell’s own coinage) dawned—Orwell did not regard the situation as utterly hopeless. He suggested a few simple rules for combatting the trends he lamented. To be avoided: hackneyed metaphors, long words where short ones sufficed, foreign phrases where English equivalents or approximations were available, and the passive voice, which could too easily be used to obscure agency. English could once again “become a language of meaning and precision,” Orwell contended, if we would battle our “lazy habits of thought,” retire “worn-out phrases,” and exert “a conscious determination to achieve the utmost clarity of statement.” In our own era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the need for clearer, simpler language is as great as it was in 1946.